By Manju Jaidka. Lifi.
Amaltas Avenue, Manju Jaidka’s third novel, is set against the backdrop of campus life over a period of three days during a sultry Chandigarh summer. The book focuses on a number of characters who share a common milieu, including the eponymous residential neighbourhood, even as they drift through seemingly ordinary lives, playing mundane everyday roles at an individual level. It should not be confused with other breezy campus writings, as Amaltas Avenue brings to attention more complex issues through its protagonists — often antagonists — when they are confronted by an unexpected turmoil in their personal and professional lives.
An insider for over 40 years, the author has had a ringside view of the intrigue, manipulation, fraud and power games that go on within the realm of academia. Such is the storyteller’s craft that the reader is often found searching for the proverbial fine line between fact and fiction. Borrowing heavily from her own role as a student, teacher, even warden, at the Panjab University in Chandigarh, Jaidka has beautifully fleshed out the life-altering events and her mixed-bag of characters.
Amaltas Avenue is divided into three sections. With the story beginning on a scorching Sunday, merging languorously into a muggy Monday before diving headlong into a torrid Tuesday. In this timeline, the book covers an array of emotions through its characters — joy, love, passion, despair, loneliness, sorrow — followed by a resigned acceptance of reality. Some episodes are indulgently inspired by the subject close to the author’s heart —English literature. The manner, in which a desperate Lachhman Das clumsily attempts to woo his lady through a love potion provided by Chotiwala, the hip tantric, and quite comically ends up being chased by both mother and daughter, is likely to evoke the memories of the Bard’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
There are even traces of Greek mythology in the storyline. The despairing Narendra takes his life cues from a painting by Dutch-artist Peter Breughel, a depiction of the Fall of Icarus. He eventually cock’s a snook at fate with his choices to end a life that is devoid of illusions. Other contemporary protagonists are found in Charu, a teacher who surfs a lot of online dating sites, Atul Agnihotri who is infatuated with a colleague, his neighbour on Amaltas Avenue, and is willing to do anything to get her attention; and in young professionals Sumi and Nagina, the former venting out his frustration on a blog delightfully called bantusapera.com. References to the ubiquitous Facebook are aplenty as well.
With its engrossing language, refreshing content, well-etched characters and humour-laced narration, Amaltas Avenue makes for an easy-paced read. Yet, despite a generally appealing storyline, this book in all likelihood will resonate louder among an audience that is either in the know or is associated with the field of academics, be it student, instructor, or administrator. Louder still among readers from the region for whom laburnum trees with their brilliant-yellow flowers dotting Chandigarh mean a lot. That even scorching summer has a golden lining is clearly the sub-text readers take-away once the last page is turned.
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